Follow us

Scotland’s fortnightly political & current affairs magazine

Subscribe

Subscribe to Holyrood
by Andrew Learmonth
24 May 2021
Kenmure Street: A community united by a divisive immigration policy

Kenmure Street: A community united by a divisive immigration policy

Had the Home Office used an unmarked van, or even a plain, everyday car, there probably would have been no protest in Kenmure Street that day.

But they came in a van with the words ‘immigration enforcement’ emblazoned on the side.

Kate, the dancing lady - dressed as a golden chicken, as she had been for most of the past few weeks - was, as usual, dancing at the corner of the Square Park to music only she could hear. 

The queue outside the mosque was growing by the minute as worshippers waited their turn for prayers. 

The Muslim children get two days off school for Eid. That, and a COVID outbreak at the after-school club, meant the Pollokshields primary school run was far quieter than usual.

The van drove down Leslie Street, past the Square Park, past Kate the dancing lady, past me, my daughter and my dog, past the queue at the mosque and stopped near the bottom of Kenmure Street, beside the bus shelter with its advert for the new John Grisham movie-adaption-blockbuster, Without Remorse. 

***

Back in 2012, two years into her job as Home Secretary, Theresa May was worried about the Greeks. The euro was seemingly on the brink, and the UK government feared a sudden influx of jobless Europeans descending on Dover.

There was talk of using emergency powers to overrule the free movement of people.  

She had been given the near-impossible task of fulfilling the new Tory government’s manifesto pledge to bring immigration below 100,000 people annually by the next general election.

The Home Secretary told The Telegraph the government would do this by putting people off even coming into the UK. And those that were here who shouldn’t be? They’d have their bank accounts frozen, they’d be denied access to work, housing and services. 

“We want to make sure that people don’t come here thinking they can actually just sort of overstay and become illegal migrants,” she said. “The aim is to create here in Britain a really hostile environment for illegal immigration.”

***

“Hypothetically if there were a Home Office van parked right outside your flat on a busy intersection between two roads with cameras on it what could someone hypothetically do about that?” tweeted @YesWithDex at 9.31am.

By that point, someone had already contacted Glasgow’s No Evictions network. 

An activist rushed to the scene. He threw his bike under the Home Office van, and crawled in after it, wedging himself between the tarmac and the vehicle.

Police were called. 

At about 10.22am, Rachel from across the street tweeted: “Eid Mubarak from the #homeoffice #forcedeviction on Kenmure Street. Crowds welcome to block this van from taking our neighbours.”

By 11am there were at least 100 there. More police arrived. They circled the van, closed off the street. 

“These are our neighbours, let them go,” the protesters shouted. 

***

Between 22 July and 22 August 2013, the Home Office ran a small pilot project, called Operation Vaken. A van carrying the message “In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest” toured six London boroughs. The idea was that people without permission to remain in the UK would leave voluntarily if they thought there was a danger of being arrested.

The vans prompted an outcry and were dropped. However, a Home Office evaluation report produced soon after claimed success, with 60 people leaving as a direct result of the scheme, and that a further 65 people were in process of leaving.

***

Van Man doesn’t want to give his real name. He’s grateful to the neighbours and friends who “came up with spontaneous solutions to support my dumb freezing dehydrated ass” as he lay under the chassis of the Mercedes Sprinter for eight hours.

He said he could hear and feel the vibrations from the two men in van “pounding the walls and stamping their feet in unison with the chants”.

“I never got to talk to them, maybe I never will, but we were that close. Only a steel chassis separated us. Almost as if borders and barriers don’t mean shit,” he said.

***

I’m not sure what time I became worried about how the day would end. I think it was about 2pm-ish. 

It was the point mid-afternoon when local shopkeepers came out with packs of crisps and bottles of Irn-Bru, when a group of activists arrived with bags full of jam sandwiches. The Without Remorse bus shelter became a sort of food station. There was a giant cookie, with “Happy Eid” iced on.

The Zia-ul-Quran Mosque set up a table, offering teas and juice.  

The crowd was getting bigger, not smaller. I saw friends, my neighbours, I saw other mums and dads from the school run, and after 3pm, I saw their kids. There were new mums with babies.

People had taken their dogs to the protest. 

It’s hard to reconcile the people I saw here with the Home Office’s description of a “mob”.

There were tensions though. At about 3.20pm police attempted to move the protesters sitting down behind the van. But as they lifted one, another two would take the space. The officers gave up after seconds.  

The only way the crowd would leave voluntarily would be if the two men in the van were released.

More police were arriving. I snuck away from the main body of the protest and looked down Nithsdale Road. Where there used to be recycling bins, there were police vans, police horses. 

There were cars parked around the corner, down Darnley Street. Huge groups of cops standing about. I’ve no idea how many were here, but there can’t have been many polis anywhere else in Glasgow.

We know now that the Home Office told Police Scotland that this was their problem. Their enforcement officer had done his job, it was up to Police Scotland to get him and the two men out of the situation.

Locals surround the immigration van holding the two men

***

Polling by ScotCen shows that attitudes towards immigration in Scotland are broadly similar to those in the rest of Britain. Around 46 per cent of people in Scotland think that immigration is good for Britain’s economy, while 17 per cent think it is bad. In England and Wales where the figures are 47 per cent and 16 per cent respectively. 

And yet it’s never been the same political clash point here that it is south of the border. 

It was barely mentioned during the 2014 referendum, where the SNP proposed a points based system in an independent Scotland. 

Instead, there has been consensus at Holyrood that immigration is necessary to tackle the problem of Scotland’s ever ageing workforce.

Cabinet papers released in 2019 showed that while in the mid-2000s, when Labour Home Secretary John Reid birthed the hostile environment, talking about making “working here illegally ever more uncomfortable and constrained,” Labour First Minister Jack McConnell was lobbying for “different rules” for Scotland. 

Ahead of the Brexit referendum, Michael Gove suggested Scotland could be given greater control over immigration if the UK left the EU. 

He told the BBC it would be “for Scotland to decide” on immigration numbers to the country after Brexit.

Nicola Sturgeon accused him of telling fibs. 

Asked about the promise a year later, Gove would only say there needed to be “an immigration policy that works in the interests of the whole United Kingdom.”

The Home Office recently launched a consultation on planned immigration reforms. It ran between March 24 until May 6.

However, the Scottish and Welsh governments were unable to contribute as the pre-election period - when restrictions are placed on the use of public resources - ran from March 25 until May 6.

***

At some point someone turned up with a PA, holding it over their head as they moved to the side of the van. 

Glasgow Girl Rosa Salih and Mohammed Asif, director of the Afghan Human Rights Foundation, effectively MC’d the protest. 

“You should sit down,” Asif told the crowd. It would, he said, be harder for the police to remove sitting protesters than standing ones.

There were speeches from politicians. Anas Sarwar - who lives five minutes away from Kenmure Street - like most of the new MSPs was in Holyrood, being sworn in. He spoke over the phone, someone holding their handset to the megaphone. 

SNP MP Alison Thewliss, whose Glasgow Central seat covers Pollokshields, was there, running between police liaison and the family and the lawyers. She tried to phone Kevin Foster, the junior Home Office minister but was knocked back. 

Similar efforts were being made in Edinburgh, where Humza Yousaf tried to contact counterparts in Whitehall. He was snubbed. 

Local councillors broke away from the full council meeting to attend. 

At around 5pm one of the protesters sitting behind the van stood up, a policeman, perhaps fearing he was about to be hit, or perhaps not, pushed the man away. 

“Don’t fucking touch me” the protester shouted. “I’m trying to stand up and he’s pushing me away,” he said.

Asif appealed for calm. “This is exactly what they want,” he warned. 

***

Speaking to Mandy Rhodes, on Politically Speaking, Holyrood’s podcast, Humza Yousaf, who was the justice minister at the time, said the Home Office told him they knew in advance there’d be a protest. He accused the UK government department of a “power play” and trying to “flex their muscle”.

That the raid had taken place in the First Minister’s constituency was, he added, “deliberately provocative”.

“It feels very very difficult to just explain it as coincidence,” he said. “The heart of the First Minister’s constituency, on the day that they must have known the First Minister and other MSPs would have been otherwise engaged. 

“They must have known, anybody with any sense, would know Pollokshields is the heart of the Muslim community in Scotland. It has been for decades. And they would have also known it would have been the day of Eid.” 

The minister pointed out that the Home Office would have to have filed a community impact assessment.

He told Holyrood: “When I spoke to one individual at the Home Office he said, ‘we had a sense that there would be a protest’. 

“Well that alone should have given you pause for thought.”

Yousaf added: “I’ve always been able to engage with UK Government. Always. And they’ve always put a minister up, even if it’s just there to listen to what I’ve got to say, but last Thursday was really different. 

“Last Thursday, they deliberately gave me a civil servant. And then it was only when the First Minister’s office reached into the UK Government at a really senior level, and even then, to talk to our First Minister of Scotland, they gave us the most junior minister possible.” 

He added: “That to me shows the disrespect and that’s why I think it’s a power play by the UK government. I don’t think other UK government departments would behave in the way the Home Office chose to behave last Thursday.”

“If it wasn’t for COVID, frankly, I would have got myself over to Kenmure Street and protested alongside the individuals that were there.”

***

At 5.09pm Police Scotland released a statement online. Chief Superintendent Mark Sutherland had taken the decision to release the men “to protect the safety, public health and well-being of all people involved in the detention”.

It was Pinar Aksu, a campaigner with Maryhill Integration Network, who read the statement out.

The cheering as the protesters realised that they’d won, that they’d beaten the Home Office, will stay with me for a long time. 

Solicitor Aamer Anwar, who was acting for the men, praised the community, and called for restraint. 

“I have an agreement that the police will form a cordon with myself and the two men and then we will be walked to the mosque where they will be released. 

“I would ask everyone to keep a distance. And once they are released into the mosque for everyone to then disperse so that the van, the horses, the police officers can disperse from this community.”

His next remarks were addressed to the Home Office: “We have a community and we will stand shoulder to shoulder and we will not let you carry out your dawn raids on human beings like you’re trying to do today.”

***

The Home Office has been defeated in Glasgow before. In the mid-2000s, the immigration officers raided the home of schoolgirl Agnesa Murselaj, a Roma from Kosovo, whose family had come here fleeing persecution. 

A group of her friends at Drumchapel High School – who became known as the Glasgow Girls – sprang into action. 

The campaign evolved from collecting signatures, to lobbying the then first minister and organising early morning watches at the Kingsway flats, where many asylum seekers were housed. Locals would rise early to keep a watch out for the immigration enforcement vans.

Until about three weeks ago, it was believed that the Home Office no longer carried out dawn raids in Scotland. 

On the day of the Kenmure Street protests, another Indian man was picked up in a dawn raid.

He is now in Dungavel Immigration Removal Centre, Scotland’s only immigration holding tank.

He has no criminal history in the UK, was in the process of submitting a fresh asylum claim and, he told the Sunday National, was running from political persecution in India. He’s been in Scotland for 16 years.

***
At 5.37pm, the doors to the Home Office immigration enforcement van opened. 

When Sumit Sehdev and Lakhvir Singh had been put inside eight hours before, they’d seen one or two people. They came out to hundreds. 

Slowly police, in a box cordon, moved forward, the crowd moving out of the way, but walking with them every step. 

The two-minute journey to the Madrasa Taleem ul Islam mosque took closer to 10. 
The crowd, triumphant, dispersed.  

Read the most recent article written by Andrew Learmonth - Nicola Sturgeon branded 'contemptible' for missing QEUH debate

Stay in the know with our fortnightly magazine

Stay in the know with our fortnightly magazine

Subscribe

Popular reads
Back to top